The recent announcement of HAU, a journal, "which aims to situate ethnography as the prime heuristic of anthropology, and return it to the forefront of conceptual developments in the discipline" has led me to reflect on how ethnography became so central to the practice of, in particular, social and cultural anthropology. My starting point is a framework proposed by world system theorist Immanuel Wallerstein to explain how the current constellation of social science disciplines emerged. I am still looking for the proper citation and, if anyone knows it, would be grateful to have it provided in a comment. Reader be warned: I am working from memory. Here goes.

According to Wallerstein the constellation of social science disciplines that emerged in the 20th century reflected a tripartite division of the world into (1) the advanced West, (2) the traditional East, and (3) the primitive Rest. Economics, political science, sociology and psychology divided up the study of the West along institutional lines: the Economists got the market, the political scientists the state, the sociologists civil society, and the psychologists the individuals who participate in all three. Area studies got the traditional civilizations of South Asia, the Far East, North Africa and the Middle East. Anthropology got the the Rest, which, conceived as being neither advanced nor having a rich history were conceived as primitive. It hardly needs saying that these divisions reflected a classic unilineal image of human evolution, from preliterate, primitive, little communities to traditional states/empiries, culminating in the modernity associated primarily with Europe and North America.

My purpose here is not to critique this framework but, instead, to examine its consequences for research methods and the data they analyze. I observe that only in the "advanced West" could social scientists find the statistical information collected by modern states and the social and other apparatus required for large-sample statistical surveys. Not surprisingly, it was in the West that quantitative methods became central to social science research. The availability of quantitative data was far more limited in the "traditional East." There were, however, vast libraries of chronicles, histories, and scriptures to study. As a result, historical (complemented by archeological or art historical) research became the preferred modus operandi of area studies. What, then, of the "primitive Rest"? Here neither quantitative nor text-based historical research were feasible. The only and, thus, the best available data could only be assembled by direct, face-to-face, hands-on, personal experience, a.k.a., ethnography. Thus it was, my tale concludes, that ethnography became central to social and cultural anthropology.

But that was the 20th century. What of the 21st? Now most of the globe is governed by states that generate statistical data, and the anthropologist whose field is in any of the places that once comprised the "traditional East" is, ipso facto, no longer working in a space where synchronic research was justified by the absence of historical records. My conclusion is not that the face-to-face, hands-on, personal experience that ethnography brings to the table is no longer relevant. It is, however, that it can no longer stand alone, even in places that were once seen as belonging to the "primitive Rest." 

Thus, for example, I once wrote, "Malinowski's notebook made him, the anthropologist, the authority on which Trobriand spells were accurate [a claim the Malinowski himself makes; for only he was in a position to evaluate spells using the techniques of critical, textual analysis]. In 1972, Trobrianders had notebooks, too. On the night of the game Weiner (1976)  describes, the winner [he who knew the most spells] was Benemiga whose "magic was written in a thick notebook that his son read to him for part of the time he chanted."

We anthropologists can no longer, therefore, present our ethnographies and say, "Those are the facts." Those are only the facts that our personal encounters have provided, and to be persuasive they must be set alongside other, statistical or historical, facts, with which they are consistent. Today's ethnographer must be comfortable analyzing relevant statistics and familiar with the history that surrounds the moment and place in which the fieldwork took place. If we wish to speak to larger issues in bigger places, we have a lot more work to do.



Views: 57


You need to be a member of Open Anthropology Cooperative to add comments!

Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on June 4, 2011 at 4:40pm

Some anthropologists use the phrase, “the fiction of kinship.” For instance, writing about pre-Islamic Mecca, Eric Wolf wrote:


Under the impact of commercial development, Meccan society changed from a social order determined primarily by kinship and characterized by considerable homogeneity of ethnic origin into a social order in which the fiction of kinship served to mask a developing division of society into classes, possessed of considerable ethnic diversity.


I had many long hours of discussions with Professor Meyer Fortes on this subject and he seemed to take kinship as a thing, as generic and fundamental to human existence.  But anthropologists, even when I was a graduate student, were beginning to see all culture as fiction, including kinship.  It is a set of symbols created, used and manipulated by powerful operators in society often in the pursuit of power, prestige and property.  I develop this further in my book, THE CREATION OF POLITICAL DOMINATION: FROM THE PALEOLITHIC TO THE PRESENT, which I am placing in draft form on Open Anthropology.


Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on June 4, 2011 at 4:21pm
There is now a Sisala Heritage Association listed on facebook.  I suspect that is another modern way in which kinship and Sisala culture is being reformulated.  See:!/sissalaheritage
Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on June 4, 2011 at 4:15pm

I do not think ethnography is true or fixed, but rather is an entity in creative movement.  Let me give you an example.  In a book I am writing I have written this paragraph:


Kinship is not a sui generis fully-developed system or entelechy.  It is, rather, an amalgam of symbols put together by men who became, over time, a line of petty rulers, often called elders within corporate kin groups.  Kinship was created by manipulating symbols and it can be changed by the same means.


With regard to my Sisala ethnography, much of it dealing with kinship, I have mentioned that some Sisala use my books on the Sisala as guides and now that on facebook some Sisala ask me questions about Sisala customs, while decrying the loss of kinship custom under the influence of modernity, technology and consumerism.  Kinship in Sisalaland is today being reformulated by those modern forces (the rise of Islam in Ghana being a major force); and my ethnography; and my responses to queries on facebook; as well as by forces about which I am unaware.  Kinship is in process.


Comment by Keith Hart on June 4, 2011 at 3:15pm

Eugene L Mendonsa said When I returned to my field among the Sisala of Northern Ghana 20 years after my initial fieldwork I found that the people had copies of my ethnography on the Sisala and some were using it to teach their children the “old ways.”  It was a bit of a shock to me.  Now, on facebook, some Sisala ask me questions about my fieldwork there.  My supervisor at Cambridge, Meyer Fortes, could not have foreseen such interaction, I believe.  Ethnography moves into the Age of Facebook, it seems.



I've got a good story on that one. Fortes did his fieldwork among the Tallensi in 1934-36, I mine in 1966-67. He went back in 1961 and told me that one of the first things he found was a literate Tallensi waving The Dynamics of Clanship at him and shouting, "How dare you write about my father in the disparaging way you did here!" Meyer said to me, "The idea that the Tallensi would be able to read my book was so foreign to me when I wrote it (the mid 40s). I could no more imagine it than you could imagine...(searching for an analogy)...the Tallensi founding a colony on the moon!"


Danny Millers book, Tales from Facebook is now out.

Comment by Keith Hart on June 2, 2011 at 10:50am
I think that ethnography occupies a space somewhere between fact and fiction. But the same also applies to history and statistics. I have practised and taught statistics all my adult life and once used them more than now. I still think that numbers are essential to understanding and telling the story of emergent world society. I have also tried to teach world history for four decades and consider that I failed. There are many possible reasons for this. But there is nothing like giving students a good ethnography to read and talk about, even if the world isolated within its covers is an artificial one.
Comment by John McCreery on May 31, 2011 at 9:41pm
Fernando, thanks for the feedback. Glad to see we are on the same page.
Comment by Fernando Rabossi on May 31, 2011 at 5:52am


I think that Wallerstein mentioned that division in Unthinking Social Sciences but I do not have the book with me, but for sure this distinction is analized in the report made by the team headed by him for the Gulbenkian Comission (Wallerstein, I., Juma, C., Keller, E.F., Kocka, J., Lecourt, D., Mudimbe, V.Y., Mushakoji, K., Prigogine, I., Taylor, P.J. and Trouillot, M.-R. 1996. Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.)

I agree with you, but for doing that anthropology we have to include serious teaching in history and statistics in our courses.

Fernando Rabossi


OAC Press



© 2020   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service